We quickly scramble in through to the airlock space, close the metal door behind us and the one in front of us is unlocked. We're trying not to let too much coolth out/ heat in. It took two years to get the vault to the correct temperature of -18C. We go through and assemble in a holding area separated from the collection by a cage, with a final lock. We take a minute to digest the rows of shelves in front of us, stacked with boxes and labelled by row and section. It looks just like the photographs I have seen. Still, it is perhaps more full now, there is just one row that isn't complete. We are directed towards a few particular boxes of interest, examine the crates. The geographer in me takes over a little and I am fascinated by where each box has come from, the stickers, colours, logos, logistics companies involved. The labels and bar codes give only the slightest hints as to what each one contains.
After a few minutes, I realise this is the coldest place I have ever been (as I haven't had the pleasure of visiting Svalbard in winter) and my nose feels funny - the mucas in there seems to be freezing up, a strange feeling. As we re-trace our steps, locking doors as we go, my nose thaws out and I indentify that smell as we pass through the cathedral - it smells like wet concrete and paint and I wonder if concrete and paint ever really set properly inside a frozen mountain...the magnitude of the building project and the boldness of the idea of this place are perhaps where my sparks of reverence start to kindle, combined with the realisation of what those boxes I have just walked among really are: a vast quantity of potential life in stasis, stacked up so neatly in such a small space.
As we emerge, somewhat relieved to be back in non-refridgerated arctic air and sunshine, more pictures are being taken. I ask a fellow visitor what they thought. 'Well, there's not much to see really is there? But it is good to have been in, and we can say we have seen it now'. We have, afterall just visited what is (probably) Norway's most famous building .
- Is it a sign of adaptation in the anthropocene: we recognise the value of such material as security for our future in changing times?
- This is a prestigious facility, in an 'exotic' place visited by high profile figures, with limited access, high security, worldwide awareness and media coverage: how can we evaluate the symbolic value of such a project?
- What kinds of value are at work here? Valuing material of use for humanity; conserving the potential of plant life; enthusisasm for collecting, for plant breeds, for science; an acceptance of 'nature' as truly hybrid and something we are inseparable from...?